The Prime Minister should have acted two weeks ago, when it became blindingly obvious that the Conservative Party chairman had avoided paying tax prior to becoming chancellor. Instead Sunak has suffered day after day of damning headlines about Tory sleaze. He has made himself look uninformed at best and deceitful at worst by telling parliament that Zahawi had “already addressed this matter in full” when he patently had not. He did Michael Gove no favours by announcing Zahawi’s dismissal on Sunday morning literally minutes before the Levelling Up Secretary was due to begin a round of the TV chat shows, and he has managed to eclipse his own announcement of an NHS recovery plan today.
Even now Sunak has not killed the story, despite his protestations to the contrary. Labour is still questioning his judgement, and demanding to know what he knew of Zahawi’s tax avoidance when he appointed him. Moreover Zahawi is not going quietly, claiming through “allies” that he was denied a proper hearing.
Sunak was either too weak to summarily dismiss Zahawi, or may genuinely have been trying to do the decent thing by ordering his ethics adviser to investigate the charges first, but anyone with an ounce of political nous would have advised him to act swiftly and ruthlessly a fortnight ago.
We voters are, admittedly, a fickle bunch. During Boris Johnson’s three years of venality, or Liz Truss’s 45 days of ideological madness, we longed for a prime minister like Sunak. He is serious, diligent and dutiful. He masters briefs. He is economically literate. He does not make wild, unredeemable promises. He is not fixated on the next day’s headlines. He wants closer relations with the EU. He largely eschews the politics of division.
We also understand that he took office in the worst possible circumstances. The economy was in freefall. The NHS was imploding. The Conservative Party was fractured and unruly. He had had no time to prepare, no popular mandate, and Johnson was – is – still lurking in the wings, threatening to attempt a comeback.
But it turns out that Sunak lacks one indispensable commodity that Johnson had in spades: political savvy. It transpires that we don’t want a cautious technocrat in No 10. We want leadership, direction, a bit of theatre even, and Sunak provides precious little of that. From the outset his has been a reactive government, a firefighting operation, an exercise in damage control, an administration that is constantly buffeted by the political weather instead of seeking to make it.
He promised a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” but proceeded to appoint Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just six days after she was sacked for leaking confidential cabinet documents, and appointed Gavin Williamson despite his record of bullying and overbearing conduct. Thus, amid the ensuing outcry, Sunak lost control of the narrative from day one.
He has stabilised the markets, but a more astute politician would have offered a much more compelling vision than the five vague and anodyne priorities he set for 2023: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing the national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. What sane prime minister would not aspire to do any of the above?
Jeremy Hunt’s big speech last week on growing the economy was similarly underwhelming. It made headlines not for what it promised but for what it ruled out: imminent tax cuts. Getting the over-50s back to work hardly constitutes a plan.
What Sunak stands for remains unclear. Is levelling up still what Johnson described as “the central mission of this government”? The Prime Minister certainly made a mess of the latest distribution of funds, managing to anger many more people than he pleased despite handing out £2.1bn.
Does he believe in less legal immigration, or more to relieve the labour shortage? Does he still believe in net zero? He was not originally due to attend last November’s Cop27 climate summit in Egypt, changing his mind only when he heard that Johnson was going. He likewise spurned the World Economic Forum in Davos, leaving that important international stage to Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves.
He has been remarkably passive in the face of the industrial action sweeping Britain. He has not moved to clean up our filthy rivers and seas. He has backed down in the face of Tory rebellions over housing targets, onshore wind farms, easing planning regulations and online censorship. It remains to be seen whether he will dare to stand up to his party’s Brexit zealots by agreeing a desperately-needed compromise with Brussels on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
There is a dearth of new ideas, of fresh thinking, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that after nearly 13 years in power the Conservatives are washed up, exhausted and intellectually as well as morally bankrupt.
Voters see that. As Sunak approaches his 100th day in office this Thursday (3 February) he has failed to reverse the Conservatives’ dismal standing in the polls, and his own approval rating has fallen to its lowest level – minus 15 – since he became prime minister.
Nor is there any respite from bad news on the horizon. The coming weeks will be punctuated by a report on alleged bullying of civil servants by Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister; Johnson’s crony-filled resignation honours list; and the privileges committee’s televised public hearings on Johnson’s alleged deception of parliament over partygate.
Sunak’s allies appeal for patience. Give him time to deliver, they beg. But he does not have much time. His post-Johnsonian policy of not making news is not working. Justifiably or not, his image as a ditherer is hardening. He is becoming the butt of cartoonists. It is unclear that he is up to the job.
Even the Tory right is becoming restive. “Do we even have a functional government, or is it merely a Potemkin construction run by people who pretend to be in charge,” the Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath wrote last week.
“Please, Prime Minister, set it out. Give us a vision to get behind. Give us something to fight for,” that self-styled conscience of conservatism, David Frost, implored.
Sunak must be tougher, less gentlemanly and more political. He needs to spend more time on the public stage and less huddled in No 10. He has to start setting the agenda instead of reacting to it.
[See also: Can Newsnight recapture its lost glory?]